Opinion: Factory trawler on borrowed time

THE fact that the factory trawler known as the Geelong Star has killed yet more dolphins and seals should come as no surprise. Various independent reports commissioned by the federal Government indicated the death of marine mammals would be an almost inevitable side effect of allowing industrial scale exploitation of baitfish stocks.

What is surprising, however, is that the Government spin-doctors didn’t put the kybosh on this ill-fated enterprise long before the first dolphin or seal met its grisly end.

The fact is the Geelong Star just isn’t worth the political pain. It’s only here because federal Fisheries spokesman Senator Richard Colbeck thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread. Colbeck has been an enthusiastic supporter of super trawlers and their ilk for years. It’s difficult to work out exactly why.

The business plan for the Geelong Star involves it catching lots of little fish for fairly piddly profit. In the big scheme of things it’s small fry indeed … Yet Colbeck has long been an ardent advocate for an industry based on big ships catching little fish. In fact, it’s near impossible to get the good Senator to focus on anything else. For instance, many in the recreational fishing sector feel somewhat slighted that the Senator and his Government have largely ignored Australia’s 5 million anglers following the 2012 election. Perhaps our boats just aren’t big enough for him?

While it’s fair to say that Senator Colbeck has been somewhat lax when it comes to showing the $10bn recreational fishing industry any love, his devotion to the super trawler sector probably isn’t making him too popular with his Government colleagues at present. After all, what politician or political party would want anything to do with an enterprise that repeatedly kills dolphins and seals?

Following the latest announcement of dolphin and seal deaths, which resulted in the Geelong Star returning to port in disgrace, Environment Minister Greg Hunt has weighed into the debate by labelling the marine mammal by catch as “unacceptable and outrageous”.

The ABC reports that Mr Hunt, a senior Cabinet minister, is writing to Senator Colbeck about the issue. That’s political speak for Colbeck getting a good slapping for what is in essence a monumental stuff-up on his part.

Colbeck, meanwhile, is putting pressure on the Australian Fisheries Management Authority to fix the problem. You can imagine the AFMA guys will be hoping and praying that no more of those stupid dolphins and seals swim into the Geelong Star’s nets when/if it again heads out to sea.

Meanwhile, green groups and recreational anglers are renewing calls for the Geelong Star to stop fishing for good. Key decision makers in the Government – including Greg Hunt – are probably right now weighing up the political benefits of banning the ship. At this stage, there’s little to be gained by allowing the vessel to keep fishing but a lot of public goodwill and support if it does get sent packing.

As it stands, the Geelong Star is doing irreparable harm to the fishing industry. The commercial and recreational sectors don’t need the general public associating “fishing” with the slaughter of dolphins and seals. Unfortunately that is exactly what’s happening.

If the Geelong Star is again allowed to head out – and it probably will be – you’d have to think that it’s operating on borrowed time. Any further marine mammal deaths – or “interactions”, as AFMA euphemistically calls them – would mean the Geelong Star would almost certainly get its marching orders.

And the same may well also apply to Senator Colbeck …

Jim Harnwell is the editor and publisher of Fishing World.

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